Bula vinaka and a very good evening to you all.
I’m delighted to be here in Raiwaqa for a very important occasion in the efforts of the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs to improve its services to iTaukei around the country – the launch of a new Community Outreach Program.
My fellow Fijians, after a long week in Parliament, I couldn’t be more pleased to be with you this evening. As far as I’m concerned, the true business of Government takes place in the grassroots – amongst the people we serve.
I’ve always believed that direct engagement with ordinary people is the most important thing for Government to do. And on a personal level, it reminds me about the great trust the Fijian people have put in me and my Government to protect their interests, to grow the economy and to create the jobs that we all know are needed.
As a nation, we took a huge step forward last September when the Fijian people gave the FijiFirst Government a decisive mandate to continue our reform program to move the country forward.
But clearly not everybody has taken this step with us. This past week in Parliament, it was unfortunate to see that Members of both the opposition parties are stuck in a time warp. Locked in the same patterns of divisive and offensive behaviour that the Fijian people have overwhelmingly turned their backs on.
For example, on Tuesday aMember of the Opposition shouted “Kaisi” at one of my Ministers. This sort of behaviour might have been acceptable under the SVT and SDL governments, but there is no place for it in our new Parliament. And no place for it in the new Fiji.
Also on Tuesday, another Member of the Opposition from SODELPA asked a question about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People – in a blatant attempt to spread fear by suggesting that the iTaukei are being marginalised.
This UN Declaration, which has no binding legal effect, stems from the experiences of indigenous peoples elsewhere, such as those in North and South America and Australia. It is not relevant to our experience in Fiji. There is no threat to the iTaukei – to their land, culture, institutions or religion.
The iTaukei own approximately 91 per cent of the land in the country and iTaukei culture and institutions have a cherished and proud place in our national life – protected by very clear and strong provisions in our Constitution.
Before that, on Monday, a Member of the Opposition from the NFP asked for a breakdown of civil servants by ethnicity, betraying a mindset that has plagued Fiji for too long.
In the past, Fiji was led by people who broke everything down by ethnicity. This created cracks in our society and led to distorted ways of thinking. For example, I still have people come up to me thinking they deserve a job – not because of their qualifications or merit – but simply because of their ethnicity.
My fellow Fijians, appointment must be by merit with all people being given equal opportunities. We must deal with everyone in an open, clear and transparent basis.
We live in one nation and we must move forward as one nation. In order to achieve what we know we are capable of, we need to be honest with ourselves. To admit that if we give people a leg up because of their ethnicity or personal relationships, then we are hurting Fiji – slowing our progress and limiting our potential.
And we would especially be hurting our young people, who deserve a level playing field as they get their start in life.
Indeed, the majority of Fijians – including iTaukei – are young people. And I believe it is our most sacred responsibility as Government to look after them. To ensure that a good future lies ahead of them by growing the economy and creating jobs.
There’s certainly lots to be optimistic about on that front. The figures are encouraging. Thanks to my Government’s policies, we have seen five consecutive years of economic growth. Growth of 4.2 per cent in 2014 and similar growth forecast for next year. Job advertisements up by 12.8 per cent. Low inflation between 0.1 and 0.2 per cent.
But we know that we can do better. We know that our potential is limitless if we work together as a united and proud nation to keep our reforms on track.
My fellow Fijians, the most disturbing thing of all this week happened this morning. SODELPA Members were determined to raise the spectre of the 2000 Coup by indirectly arguing for leniency for George Speight – the perpetrator of the most terrible episode in our national history. I have no doubt that they wanted to rehash this painful chapter because many of them still sympathise with his cause, if not his actions.
That’s why, in light of the events in Parliament this week, I feel it necessary to repeat the call that I made during my election campaign. That we must all work together to break these old mindsets until they no longer exist in our society. And to resist any forces – however small– that try to drag us back to the past. To reject any comment or action that humiliates or degrades a fellow Fijian or a specific group.
This is a national mission and we all have a role to play. Whether it’s within our families, at school or in the workplace. We can all make a difference by standing up for each other and taking care of each other when we hear something offensive. Or when we see something going on that’s not right.
We are all on the same team – Team Fiji – and like a good team we need to work together and have each other’s backs.
But tonight, my fellow Fijians, we embark on another important mission and one that specifically affects the lives of the iTaukei and those affected by decisions made by the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs, the TLTB and other related ministries. The Ministry’s Community Outreach Program.
The goal of this program is simple. To open up a direct channel of dialogue about the services we provide; about any concerns you may have; and about how we can do a better job.
I’ve brought with me a team of representatives from the various iTaukei institutions which is here to answer your questions and provide you with information on a range of important issues – including the new VKB registration process that I know is on many of your minds.
This exercise is especially important given the amount of misinformation and rumours that are still being spread through the iTaukei community by Opposition politicians – even after the election. We are here to set the record straight. Above all, to explain that the indigenous rights and customs are not under threat.
Because the facts are this. The Fijian Constitution recognises the unique culture, customs, traditions and language of the iTaukei and protects their ownership of their land. Under the Constitution, all iTaukei land will remain with its customary owners and no iTaukei land will ever be lost, whether by sale, grant, transfer or exchange.
And there are other benefits to landowners, such as the right to a fair share of royalties for any minerals found under their land or under the seabed in waters where they have customary fishing rights. Also, for the first time, in any of our Constitutions, the Bill of Rights says that any land leased by landowners must provide them with a fair and equitable return.
And again for the first time, if any iTaukei land is used by the State then it must be returned to the land owners if the State no longer requires it for the purpose it was originally acquired for.
So rather than worrying about a non-existent threat, today we want to put our heads together to see how we can improve the services offered by indigenous institutions.
We want you to hear directly from us about the roles and responsibilities of these institutions and their plans and projects for the year to come. These include the iTaukei Affairs Board, the iTaukei Land Trust Board and the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs.
And we want to hear from you about any concerns and questions you have, or your ideas for how we can improve our services. The information that you provide us will allow the staff in my Ministry to make adjustments to serve you better in the future.
My fellow Fijians, my Government is serious about raising the bar across the Civil Service in terms of efficiency and service delivery.
We are planning a massive reform in conjunction with the World Bank to make it more responsive to the needs and demands of the Fijian people.
Of course, this reform program includes the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs. The demand for higher standards of good governance and strategic planning extends to indigenous institutions just like any other.
This means more accountability and transparency – especially within the provincial and tikina councils. These organisations are still too often run from the top down without proper consultation and engagement with the people they serve.
It means things like keeping proper accounts and appointing staff on merit. But, of course, it also means listening better to our customers.
And so tonight is the beginning of an important journey. We are here to talk face-to-face with you. We have come to hear what you have to say. To start a dialogue that we will continue as this Roadshow travels around the country.
The schedule has not yet been finalised, but the Ministry plans to visit a wide range of communities – densely populated areas like this, rural areas on both Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and the maritime areas. We want to travel as far and wide as possible because these consultations are designed to establish a closer partnership between the people and the institutions that serve them.
My fellow Fijians, before I conclude tonight, I would like to take a few moments to discuss the announcement to change our national flag to one that better reflects Fiji’s position in the world as a modern and independent nation state.
We believe that Fijians share an aspiration to have a national symbol that reflects our present state as a nation. As I’ve said before, this is in no way a repudiation of our existing flag or of our very friendship with Britain.
I know that some Fijians have expressed concern that this decision is an attempt to turn our backs on our past or to sever all links with the British. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I want to again stress that Britain remains our friend and we will always value our historical link to Britain and the British Crown.
But it is time to dispense with symbols that speak more about our past than our future – to sever links that are no longer relevant in our national life.
As a proud and independent nation, we deserve symbols that are unique and indigenous to Fiji. That we can all be proud of. That reflect our aspirations in the 21st century as a country that is charting its own course in the world.
As I have outlined before, this change will take place through a national competition for the design of the new flag, followed by a series of broad consultations across the community on the appropriateness of those designs. The process will be inclusive and based on a general consensus.
All Fijians – especially young people – are encouraged to enter the competition. We want people to put their imaginations to work. Every submission is welcome.
As a first step, at the same time we launch the competition, we plan to announce a National Panel of Citizens, chosen from a broad cross section of Fijian society. The Panel will begin the process of reviewing the entries in order to determine the final selection for submission to the public.
I will be writing to the Leader of the Opposition in the next week or so, inviting her to make nominations for the Panel, which we expect to have set up by the end of February.
Fijians will then have two months to create their designs and submit them. A single design may not be the final design, but it might form the basis of a wider design and play an important role in the final outcome.
Most importantly, the whole selection process has been designed so that we will be ready to hoist our new flag on the 45th anniversary of our Independence – October the 10th, 2015.
This will be a proud moment for Fiji and one that I’m sure we will all remember for the rest of our lives. More details on the competition and the National Panel will be announced in the coming weeks.
But for now, I do not want to make a long speech tonight. I want to hear what you have to say. And so, ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to declare the iTaukei Community Outreach Program and roadshow open.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.